Monday, August 6, 2012

Breaking Bad: Is There a Right or Wrong Way to Watch Something?

Spoilers for the most recent episode.

After one year spent in the universe of Breaking Bad, who thinks that Walter White has become the most awful person on the show?
Vince Gilligan: "As unpleasant as some of these tasks he has taken upon himself have been, there is something else that drives him. And that is this need for power. This need for feeling potent and feeling important in this little world he lives in.  And to that end, he does what he would probably describe as a lot of unpleasant things. He rationalizes his behavior, and says that what he does, he does for his family. But, in fact, he does what he does for self-aggrandizement, to make himself feel important. So as the killings progress, they take more out of Jessie [sic]. They seem to bother Walt less and less."
Bryan Cranston: "Cranston adds that he understands some of the character's impulse, but only to a point. 'It's not so hard for me as a man to get into that survival instinct, or protecting your family,' he says. 'Most men take on that responsibility. But the thing that is difficult for me to accept is his whole ego. His hubris and greed and avaricious nature are foreign to me. I have to allow myself to go there and have him become the peacock that he is.'"
Jonathan Banks: "I don't think he loves Jesse at all. You're talking about Walt? I don't think Walt cares for anybody...A sociopath feels no guilt in their actions and what they do...I think he's been a sociopath since the time in the gym when he justifies the airplane crash - with 'Well, there have been worse crashes. More people have died.' That is the classic sociopath."
Aaron Paul: "I think he's definitely taking us down...and he just knows how to manipulate everybody. He has everybody on his little strings...he just wants to be the king. That's it. It's just a power trip."
The critical pulse: He's a controlling megalomaniac, a monster underneath a regular suburban dad mask, relentlessly badgering and mocking, someone Gilligan is unbelievably committed to [making us] hate, and a mix of arrogance, greed, intellectual vanity, and male insecurity that drove him to kill the old Walt and replace him with Heisenberg.
Who doesn't? I dunno, maybe take a quick trip through Twitter and see who's least popular there? (Or skim this poorly argued Slate article, which totally misreads the last four episodes.)

I'm framing this discussion through Skyler because she acts as a mirror to what Walt's plan was from the very first episode. He started cooking meth as a way to provide for his family after his death; in his eyes, it was a market he could easily assimilate into and slip out of once he'd pulled down enough money to allow them a comfortable post-Walt life. Skyler is the only person in the cast who is able to put this into perspective, since Walt Jr. remains obliviously enthralled by his father and Holly is a dumb baby. She is the only character who takes Breaking Bad back to its first seed, morally questionable action in defense of loved ones, and her presence serves as a painful reminder of how far Walt has strayed from this goal. She has her own goal now, explicitly announced - she's taking morally questionable action in defense of loved ones - and that puts her in direct opposition to Walt. The most recent episode portrays her as her childrens' most staunch defender, which earns her Walt's fury and scorn and promises of greater trouble down the line. How odd.

The cooking, this life of crime, Walt's fierce and uncompromising defense of both himself and his business - they are not even remotely for Skyler or Walt Jr. or Holly anymore. They are entirely for Walt and his bruised, emasculated ego. His impulse to feed this narcissism has long since eclipsed any concerns about the welfare of his family, which has been threatened more than once with no uncertainty whatsoever. Sometimes Walt is aware of these threats, such as when Gus Fring threatens to kill his wife and infant daughter to his face, and sometimes they fall outside his perception, like when the cartel literally marks his home for death. Walt is operating against forces totally beyond his vision, forces that are far more powerful than him. He always has been, right since the very first episode, when he decided to cook without a whit of knowledge about the maddeningly complex and crushing world he was plunging into. At this point he is simply ignoring them, telling himself and Skyler that there's no threat to them or their children anymore.

And perhaps there isn't. Perhaps at this point, Walt's only real threat is the DEA, who would imprison him and possibly Skyler and put the kids in a safer environment. But for him to even assume a lack of threat is arrogant beyond compare; he's putting the lives of his wife and children on the line after being granted innumerable escape routes simply because he thinks he can outsmart any antagonist presented to him. Walt continues to cook because Enemy #1 got his face blown off and now he thinks he's operating unopposed, pulling in cash for college and fancy cars. Skyler, even with limited understanding she has of the labyrinthine circumstances he's embroiled in, knows better. Why can't the audience at large see this?

Textual and paratextual evidence paints Walt as a bad person. To list his crimes, both legal and emotional, would be redundant. Gilligan wants us to know this, Cranston wants us to know this, Paul and Banks and nearly everyone writing about the show want us to know this. The fanbase doesn't seem to buy it, though, and that urges a question: are they watching the show wrong? Is that even possible?

In terms of subjective viewership, no. An audience member is free to take whatever he wants from a television program or a movie or whatever media he might consume. But there is a question of not gleaning enough information from that media. Calling Walt a "badass" ignores the fact that he's lost (or is losing) the things that actually mattered to him in the pursuit of power and sweet rides and that stupid fucking hat. Calling him a "genius" ignores the fact that he used his prodigious scientific ability in an arena that totally obliterated him, beyond anything he could have imagined. Anna Gunn herself has spoken fairly insightfully about this, noting that "People watching want to be Walt, or they identify with him. He doesn’t have to answer to anybody. He does what he wants. There’s a fantasy element to that, I think," and that Skyler is unpopular because she represents the show's greatest deterrent to that sort of proximal thinking. This is not a new phenomenon at all, since viewers reacted to Travis Bickle and Vito Corleone and Tony Montana as they do to Walter White. It's a perspective that falls apart with a healthy dose of critical thought, but people don't always watch television or movies to be critical.

Gilligan is surely aware that his audience might be missing the forest for the trees, and primarily seems to use Walt Jr. as a cautionary measure against idolizing Walt. He thinks his dad's great, but that's because he has absolutely no idea what is going on. He doesn't know that his father's actions had him perched on the verge of death no less than two weeks previous. Walt Jr. only knows the endearing aspects of this man, those we once subscribed to but which have since been swallowed by his callousness and amorality. It's similarly telling that he reacts to Skyler in a very similar way to the fanbase, writing her off as a bitch and a killjoy when she stands in the way of fun times with Dad. We have seen more than he has, though, and that's what should separate us from him.

Breaking Bad has always made demands from its audience, urging constant moral and ethical re-examination of each figure in this drama. The show passes down little personal judgment, but instead involves each player in a constantly expanding chain of cause and effect, asking us to make sense of it all. Gilligan has made it clear, in more ways than one, which character he's backing in the Walt vs. Skyler smackdown. This is not to vindicate her either of her faults or her transgressions - she is controlling in her own right, yes, and she has made her share of mistakes in the past. Smoking while pregnant is the example most anti-Skyler mouthpieces use as their ultimate fallback, and it's pretty awful. One cigarette pales in comparison to the danger Walt has placed his children in, though, and I think Gilligan drew this parallel on purpose to establish an in-show foundation that recognizes the divide between attitudes toward each character. I can only imagine that this acknowledgement of Walter's problematic fanbase will precipitate into some sort of dramatic action, something that will truly and irrevocably destroy any sympathy the audience might have remaining for him. There may not be a wrong way to watch a show, but at the end of the day it is Vince Gilligan's show, and it remains to be seen if he is so bold as to disagree so vocally with his audience's opinions.

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